GAINESVILLE — In March, about six weeks after Ben Sasse started as the University of Florida’s 13th president, flyers began popping up around campus asking where he was.
“MISSING,” said the headline over his photo. “Have you seen this man?”
Those with information were asked, tongue in cheek, to call the president’s office in Tigert Hall. “UF needs a leader,” the message declared.
When Sasse was interviewing for the job last fall amid raucous protests over his selection, the former Republican U.S. senator pledged to “listen, listen, listen and listen some more” when he arrived. But almost three months into his tenure, some student leaders are expecting more.
Sasse, 51, has made few public appearances on campus and has yet to meet with many groups on campus: student government, the faculty union, the graduate student union, to name a few.
He has not met with the LGBTQ+ Presidential Advisory Council, whose leaders reached out to him after he arrived. Many of the protests over Sasse were about negative comments on same-sex marriage he made while in the Senate. People also noted his absence recently at the annual faculty senate reception, which is typically attended by the president.
The student newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator, published an editorial, “Paging Dr. Sasse,” imploring the new president to meet with them.
“Haven’t seen the man once,” said Andrew Taramykin, a student government senator.
Sasse’s predecessor, Kent Fuchs, a gregarious figure 17 years older than Sasse, was often seen on golf carts around campus, taking selfies with students, posting on Twitter, appearing in TikToks (now banned at Florida universities) and staying overnight in the dorms.
When Sasse did make a recent show of being on campus, he posted photos of the barren campus on Instagram during spring break — when no students were around. “Gorgeous morning in Gainesville,” he remarked under a pre-dawn photo of Century Tower at the center of campus.
Another student senator, Faith Corbett, said she hopes Sasse will start explaining soon.
“There’s a lot going on right now that threatens students,” she said. “I just want an opinion on something. There’s a lot of fear in the unknown.”
Corbett belongs to the UF Women’s Student Association, which hosts an annual event at the President’s House, a stately former residence used for university events. At last year’s gathering, Fuchs mingled with students and posed for photos. This year, the new president didn’t make it.
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“We were very confused because by the end of the night we realized Sasse was never there,” Corbett said. “We were given no explanation why. I was hurt knowing he didn’t even show up.”
Sasse gave an early indication that he’d be starting slowly when he spoke to the faculty senate about 10 days into his job. He told members that tackling the big questions would take awhile.
A lot of time had been spent making what he called “$1 million decisions” for the near future. Now, he said, the university needs to focus on the “$100 million decisions” as it figures out how to serve a dramatically altered work world.
“Most of that will require me probably going a little bit slow at the beginning,” Sasse said, “but then accelerating pretty rapidly.”
On his first day at UF, Sasse sent a message to students and faculty.
He told students that he and his wife, Melissa, would be excited to see them having lunch at the Reitz Union or cheering on Gator student-athletes. He sent them a copy of his letter to faculty, a message that posed some of the same big questions he raised when interviewing for the job:
“How do we best invest in human capital?”
“How do we become faster and nimbler to make UF a more compelling partner for the most interesting institutions across the globe?”
“How do we determine the right locations for programs beyond area code 352,” he said, noting Gainesville’s area code, “and when the right mode of educational delivery is fully in-person, hybrid, or remote?”
“We’re open to all big ideas, from all corners of a diverse and vibrant university,” Sasse wrote. “Please feel free to send me your big ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Since then, his public communications and appearances have been limited. The university has not yet fulfilled a request for his calendar, a public document that would show his schedule. The Tampa Bay Times has also requested interviews with Sasse since his selection in November, but the university has so far declined.
Asked where Sasse spends his working hours, a university spokesperson said he typically arrives at his Tigert Hall office between 4:30 and 5 a.m. after a morning run through campus. He also walks 10 to 12 miles per day, returning calls and working to recruit staff as he goes, “rather than sitting still on the phone,” the spokesperson said, adding that Sasse also keeps a second office on campus.
Aron Ali-McClory, a UF student who organized the protest of Sasse’s first visit to campus, said his low profile is concerning as Gov. Ron DeSantis and state lawmakers push major changes to higher education in Florida.
“Nobody’s got the opportunity to hear his thoughts on pressing issues,” Ali-McClory said. “And, you know, when people talk about Ben Sasse having ‘a hill of trust to climb,’ I think that he’s not even seen the hill.”
During Sasse’s early appearance before the faculty senate — a 30-minute surprise stop where he said he’d have to “roll” soon — he laid out a timeline for getting up to speed.
“I’m getting fully immersed in the physical wonderland that is this place and looking forward to learning from all of you,” said Sasse, whose previous experience as an academic leader was from 2009 to 2015 as president of Midland University, a Nebraska school with 1,300 students.
“I tend to take kind of a listening approach when I’m getting to know a new institution,” he told the faculty. “So I’m kind of framing my first handful of weeks as transition tutorials.”
For the first three weeks, he said, he wouldn’t leave Gainesville. Then, he planned to travel around the state, learning about the needs of each county and where the university might be able to partner.
“I think we have a unique stewardship — responsibility — to be able to help the whole state think through human capital challenges in 2030, 2035, 2040,” he said.
At a faculty meeting in late April, Sasse said he’d met many alumni who told him they loved UF but that they didn’t know what it was great at. He said UF would remain “radically committed to pluralism” and viewpoint diversity. Students would be taught to “love your neighbor, even when you don’t agree with them.”
A faculty member asked what he thought about Florida legislation aimed at changing higher education, with cuts to diversity programs, restrictions on tenure and limits on course content related to race.
“There are pieces of it that are better and more constructive than other pieces,” said Sasse, who attended Gator Day in Tallahassee during the legislative session that ended Friday. He added that it wasn’t in his interest to comment on legislation publicly.
Sasse’s phone alarm went off, but he stayed a bit longer and reminded faculty that taxpayers funded most of their paychecks and Florida continued to invest heavily in higher education when other states hadn’t.
“You can love that or you can hate it,” he said.
“It’s good to be a partner with you,” he told them before leaving. “Take care.”
A different style
Sasse’s arrival was followed by more turnover in UF’s top ranks.
Longtime provost Joe Glover announced he’d be stepping down days before Sasse arrived. The chief financial officer left for a job at Cornell University. In late April, Sasse sent an email with no explanation, saying the chief operating officer no longer worked for the university.
Sasse has also brought in at least one consultant as part of his transition team. Toby Stock, a member of the National Constitution Center and former Harvard Law School assistant dean for admissions, is assisting with the UF Foundation. University officials did not respond to requests to provide a contract or a full list of the transition team but stated that Stock was serving in a personal capacity. They did not elaborate.
Some who have caught a glimpse of the president’s style say he’s doing fine.
Amanda Phalin, chairperson of the faculty senate, explained his absence at the faculty reception, saying Sasse informed her in advance that he’d either be able to attend that event or the senate meeting, but not both. She picked the meeting.
She said she sees Sasse as someone who’s worked hard behind the scenes and met with legislators during a session that could have had a worse impact on higher education.
“Faculty, students and staff are used to seeing a presidential presence on campus,” Phalin said. “It’s a stylistic and personality difference. … He’s a serious and thoughtful person, really taking the time to get to know the ins and outs of this place.”
Jamal Sowell, a former UF student body president who serves on UF’s alumni board, said it’s unfair to compare the presidents. Each brings his own experiences and approach, he said.
Sowell also served as a special assistant to former UF President Bernie Machen, Fuch’s predecessor.
“I think that President Sasse will be fine, and people will learn his style, almost like the way that people had to learn President Machen’s style or President Fuchs’ style or even President Lombardi’s style,” he said, referring to John Lombardi, who served throughout the 1990s.
He noted that Machen had a background in child psychology. Lombardi specialized in Latin American history, and Fuchs’ expertise is in engineering and theology.
A president’s main focus, Sowell said, should be on capital campaigns, state appropriations from the Legislature, setting an academic vision and acting as a spokesperson for the university.
“He’s done well so far,” said Sowell, who sees Sasse in the mold of other university presidents in Florida who came to the job after political careers and succeeded. Former Florida State University Presidents John Thrasher and T.K. Wetherell, for example, both served as House speaker.
”I think that (Sasse) will be in line with that,” Sowell said. “He has the unique skill set to grace the Legislature in terms of funding for the school and really balancing different interests.”
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.